The “Save Shafqat” campaign might not have gotten the result it hoped to achieved, but the trial saga has revealed  several insights into our justice delivery system, not least of which is the role of NGOs and media houses in the process. When Justice Project Pakistan, a legal aid NGO, broke the story of Shafqat’s possible mistrial, the media took the facts at face value – it was justified in doing so, the NGO presented strong evidence. As a result almost all media houses ran an intensive campaign to have his sentence reviewed, repeating the facts which the official Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) has now determined as untrue. The matter still has not been conclusively put to rest, but the FIA enquiry has presented a seemingly irrefutable report.

Yet this episode cannot be consigned to the dustbin of history as a failed campaign based on mistruths; it has greater significance than this. Firstly, it aptly demonstrated the injustice of the death sentence. The finality of the punishment produced a desperate race against time, prompting all manner of individuals to take up the cause. Had our greatest sanction been life imprisonment, the course of justice could have taken its due time, facts could have been better investigated, and the possibility of a reversal would always remain open. Secondly, it demonstrated that the civil society and the media can raise issues to the upper echelons of power and can demand justice effectively. This might not mean a great deal to victims of a conscious state policy, but it bodes well for the countless people suffering from institutional injustice; whose only method of reprieve is to create a din loud enough to prompt state action.        

But in conjunction with these facts, both the NGOs and the prominent media houses – including this newspaper – are to be blamed for not verifying the facts that they presented. The greater culpability lies with the NGO; being the source of the story. In the modern age, with a vast multitude of sources, journalists cannot verify each fact independently, rather they rely on the credibility of the source, and established NGOs are generally considered credible. But instead of focusing on culpability and alleged maliciousness, we should focus on the reasons that lead to the confusion over Shafqat’s age. There is no easily accessible, centralised and updated database which contains the details of the people that have been incarcerated or are under trial. Understandably, such a record cannot be made public, but people from the legal profession and journalists need this information for the proper dispensation of their duties.